One thing that internationals were exposed to around my dinner table when I lived in France was the launching of a conversation about the physical appearance of men and women in different countries. This discussion was used tongue-in-cheek (by me) to replace those weird dinner party games that I saw played by adults of my parents’ generation, such as “pass the grapefruit.” My discussion topic was a way to be intimate while talking in abstractions that no one would consider entertaining at work or in another setting. Usually our dinner parties included at least one American (me), a German (my husband) and a few French people. Often they also included Portuguese or Slovak friends as well.
So, I would ask the men, “Where in the world, for you, are the women most beautiful?” This usually led finally to a convergence on Brazilian women, whose beauty, I always pointed out, was confounded a bit with the teaspoon-sized bikinis that they were observed wearing. Or at least imagined to be wearing in the conjurings of the men at the dinner party. Eastern European women often benefitted in these conversations as well. When queried about men, I found that women agreed less. Israel, Afghanistan, Germany all emerged from time to time. Although to the average reader this might sound like an exercise in fostering clichés, or just not PC, this is the kind of conversation that ex-pats entertain very easily. And in addition to enhancing intimacy, it also focuses people on what they like about another country (although inevitably, it is true, no mention of beautiful people comes without snide comments about countries where the men or women are definitely not beautiful).
The fact is, particularly for culturally homogeneous countries, people often feel as if they have extracted a template, or prototype of the people of a given country. They then make predictions about national origines based on those prototypes. It is just one of many snap judgments people make as they negotiate their social lives. Some percentage of the time, depending upon experience, the prototypes lead people to correct judgments. When I was in Nashville on a girlfriend weekend this fall, I looked over at men standing at the far end of the bar – too far away to be heard – and predicted, “See that young guy over there, and the older one, maybe his father? They are German.” They were. From Munich.
One thing I noticed when I moved to France was that my incredibly curly, nest-like hair, was not a common feature of French women. Most of them, more than in the United States, have straight, dark hair, sort of like Amélie Poulain. Or Juliette Binoche. I don’t look anything like Amélie Poulain. My hair makes me look more like a medusa. Or Cher from the 1980s. Anyway, getting my hair cut at a salon in France was an immediate challenge. Not only were stylists unaccustomed to or untrained in cutting curly hair, but not a single stylist in any city would let me leave the salon with wet hair. Either she would blow my hair straight, leaving me looking like a wet dog, or she would use a diffuser and add “volume” to my curls until I left looking like Bozo the Clown. I would beg to be allowed to air dry my hair, but no. It was unthinkable to let a client leave the establishment unstyled.
So, in desperation, I became truly French and agreed to have my curls cut short and my hair blown-dry: The gamine look (although no other aspect of my physical appearance is gamine-like). Usually the stylist also colored my hair so that it possessed a purple-ish hue. I changed stylists many times over a period of about 10 years because, although I came to speak French fluently, I could not communicate what I wanted done with my hair. My sentences were correct, but the impact was zero. Perhaps the overlap between my desired appearance and any knowledge the stylists possessed, was just too slim. Occasionally I thumbed through magazines that were lying around the salons, intently trying to find a photograph featuring a model with curly hair. There were none.
Ten years after moving to France, sporting my short blown-dried Amélie hair, my family and I moved to the United States for a year long sabbatical. It was August and rather humid when I arrived and, not surprisingly, my blown-dry helmet of hair started to frizz. “Hey,” my then-new- acquaintance -- now friend -- Anne snorted, looking carefully at my hair. “You have naturally curly hair! What on earth are you doing blowing it dry?” My husband echoed, “Yeah, what are you doing blowing it dry?”
But I should not sound too beleaguered because my friend Clarrette, also an American living in my town of Clermont-Ferrand, could always top my stories. “Do you think there is a decent salon in town for women of color?” she would ask me rolling her eyes ironically. “Our closet is a veritable drug store of hair products purchased in the States. It takes me days to do all of the girls” (she has three daughters). “Or else, we all take the train to Paris and spend a fortune!” Clarrette would shake with laughter, revealing her strength of character.
In the end, like most things about me that are “different” than the typical French woman, I just got deathly tired of talking about it. Clarrette was also philosophical about this reaction. “You know what is wrong with you all (i.e., you ex-pats),” she told me, “You just aren’t used to being minorities!”